Petitioning for Malaysia Baru

JULY 4 — Two months have passed since the historic change in government.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that spirits are high among the rakyat. Social media gravid with positive messaging, droves turning out at rallies/forums, and when the national debt was announced to be one trillion-ringgit, people were even willing to lighten their wallets if it meant helping the nation recover.

And while the Pakatan Harapan government finds its footing in Putrajaya, I can’t help but notice a sudden increase in the number of petitions floating around Malaysian cyberspace. One day someone “Calls for an Environment Ministry“ and the next, “Dr Mahathir for the Nobel Peace Prize“.

But, why not?

Setting up a petition, OK, in this case an e-petition, literally takes just five minutes with sites like Change.org. Register an account, punch in your stand, add a nice picture and voilà: you can champion a cause, with a sharable link to boot!

Signing it takes even less time and effort.

Reform agenda

Yes, I admit, the idea of petitioning is not new.

In fact, petitions have been changing policy for thousands of years. In ancient China, a corrupt official can be impeached if a petition was sent to the emperor while the US Constitution guarantees the right to petition in its First Amendment.

In the Malaysian context, however, I believe something is rumbling within the rakyat after the change in government. To put it simply, Malaysians are now more willing to voice out their opinions and provide policy recommendations without fearing redress. And this has translated into this increase of petitions.

It is also encouraging that this reform agenda has been embraced by the new government. The setting up of the Committee on Institutional Reforms, led by legal experts, is an opportunity to rebuild systems within Malaysia; to rewrite history, so to speak.

This move has allowed ordinary Malaysians to submit recommendations about institutions or institutional practices that might have been a barrier to a better nation. The same ordinary Malaysians who, in the past, would have (unconstructively) turned to social media to air their grievances.

Petitions in the modern age

The next question is then, “Do petitions work?”

After all, if enough people share your thoughts, it will come true, right?

Well, not exactly.

Reports of petitions overseas show that numbers do not necessarily translate into positive results.

In the UK, the good news is that the government will allow any issue to be debated in Parliament if a petition gets more than 100,000 signatures (0.0015 per cent of the population). The bad news, however, is that the top 10 most shared campaigns have been unsuccessful upon debate.

Petitions have also been criticised as a form of slacktivism. They allow people to show support by a mere click of the mouse than actually going above and beyond their means to influence change.

That being said, several petitions have resulted in changes.

Huffington Post reported several cases where the White House was moved to take action when called upon by thousands of Americans by means of petition. This ranged from student loan policy reform to revealing their in-house secret beer recipe.

Back home, the “Tommy Thomas for AG“ and “Dr Mazlee for Education Minister“ seemed to have worked. Though there might be debates to whether the outcome was because of the petition or were merely correlated.

Where to, Malaysia Baru?

While the impact of petitions towards future domestic policy remains to be seen, Malaysians can take comfort that there is more room for public debate. By harnessing the power of e-petitioning, one can effectively gather a big enough audience to be noticed by the people in power.

The recent election has shown that Malaysians are a lot harder to satisfy than initially thought. And as of now, Malaysians demand sweeping reforms.

Deep down inside, I hope signing these petitions are not the only thing they do to achieve this.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.